Cicadas to Emerge in the American South After 17 Years Underground

Getty A newly emerged adult cicada suns itself on a leaf on May 16, 2004 in Reston, Virginia.

If nothing else, 2020 has promised to be a year filled with surprises. For the last few months, those surprises have been frustrating, frightening, and even heartbreaking for countless people around the world as job losses mount, social distancing measures remain in effect, and the COVID-19 death toll climbs ever higher. The arrival of billions of cicadas flocking throughout parts of the South, however, is not one of those surprises; rather, it’s a buzzing, swarming marvel 17 years in the making.

Magicicada periodical cicadas, or 17- and 13- year cicadas, are large, winged bugs that fly in massive swarms in a four-to-six week melee of mating. Periodical cicadas are not to be confused with annual cicadas, which appear each summer across the continental US. All 48 states in the continental US have at least four species of cicada. Annual cicadas, however, do not swarm en masse every 17 years like their periodical cousins, making the swarms this summer something of a spectacle.

17 Year Periodical Cicadas | Planet Earth | BBC EarthThe biggest insect emergence on the planet is underway – after an absence of 17 years the next batch of Periodical Cicadas will grace the Forest for just a mere few days. For the Turtle and other Forest inhabitants this will be one very rare but ultimately satisfying banquet. Taken From Planet Earth Subscribe to…2017-05-05T13:18:39Z

Cicadas are instantly recognizable by their distinct, persistent chirping, a genus-specific love song performed when males buckle their ribs over and over to attract nearby females. Dating all the way back to the seventeenth century, people have referred to periodical cicadas as “locusts,” but that description is not biologically accurate, meaning we can leave that particular box unchecked on our 2020 apocalypse checklist. Today, cicadas live in broods that span across the Gulf and throughout the South, reaching as far north as New York and Michigan and as far west as Texas. This year, males from Brood IX have already begun calling to females in parts of Virginia, West Virginia, and North Carolina, according to the New York Times.

Periodical cicadas spend most of their lives underground, maturing for anywhere from 13 to 17 years before emerging to mate. When they emerge, their time in the sun is brief – they live long enough to mate and lay their eggs, if they’re lucky. Frogs, turtles, spiders, raccoons, birds, and even ants prey on cicadas. Cicadas have so many predators, in fact, that it’s easier to name the species that don’t eat them than the species that do. Even people eat cicadas. In 2013, when a cicada brood swarmed in the Hudson Valley area, National Geographic described the bugs as “low-carb” and “gluten-free.” NBC News compared them to shrimp. This broad-based dietary appeal can be devastating to small broods of cicadas that don’t have the numbers to satisfy the hunger of regional predators, but large swarms are protected by their sheer size. There are simply too many cicadas for predators to want to eat them all.

Sewickley Residents Creeped Out By Swarming CicadasThe cicadas are back in western Pennsylvania, but how long will the invasion last? KDKA's John Shumway reports.2019-05-20T22:18:05Z

Periodical cicadas from the various broods are expected throughout the next decade, their mating seasons staggered to avoid certain predators, claims the New York Times. According to Cicada Mania, this particular brood, Brood IX, last emerged from underground in 2003. The site notes that other broods may swarm this year. Brood X, which has mating sites from Michigan to Georgia and down most of the eastern seaboard, is expected to swarm next year, but could come a year early. Broods XIII and XIX are expected four years from now, but they also could make an early arrival this year in the western Great Lakes region and throughout much of the Southern and Midwestern states, respectively.

Cicadas are not much of a threat to mature trees and plants, according to the New York Times, but they can hurt or even kill younger flora. Cicadas lay their eggs on tree branches, which can weigh down a young tree and stunt its growth. Once those eggs hatch, the newborn nymphs (baby cicadas) dive underground where they’ll feed on tree roots, try not to get eaten by moles, and wait for the better part of two decades before repeating the whole song and dance once again.

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